Monday, March 3, 2014

The problematic nature of GMO labels

The reality of genetically engineered food is much more nuanced than we're led to believe.

Things we don’t understand are often terrifying. Like calculus.

It usually does a number on college students’ grade point average, which is not so fun when scholarships, future employment, and getting into a decent grad school partly depend on good grades.

Similarly, your continued existence depends on not eating scary new substances that you know very little about. This is roughly how many people see genetically engineered food.

When I started doing research for this article, I expected to learn all about the shifty shenanigans of the devil incarnate (at least according to the environmentalist Left), Monsanto, along with its poisonous tools of death and destruction, genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

And that’s what I found at first, but as I dug deeper and deeper, I began to realize that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

What exactly is happening to our food?

There’s a semantic problem with calling certain foods “genetically modified.” Every crop is genetically modified. Humans have been tinkering with plants and animals for thousands of years to create organisms with more desirable traits simply by selecting preferred organisms for reproduction.

Virtually none of the food you find in the grocery store resembles its wild ancestors.

The difference between the slow, trudging process of evolution and genetic engineering is that with this new technology, scientists can take one particular gene from a given species and inject it into another. This lets us pick and choose which genes we do and don’t want in an organism.

With traditional breeding, we can get desired traits, but sometimes undesirable ones will follow it. With the old system, it’s also extremely difficult if not impossible to get genes to cross between species. Genetic engineering solves that problem.

To be clear, genetically engineered foods are not all the same. Some are engineered to grow faster. Others are designed to provide different nutrients. It all depends on each specific organism. Genetically engineering new corn and cotton seeds, for instance, does not make them more similar to one another than they were beforehand.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration graphic created by Michael Ermath

Tackling the major myths

Any layperson who tries to research GMOs is going to run into some pretty hefty misinformation about the technology, so I’ll just plow through two of the biggest myths right now.

A French study found giant tumors in rats that ate Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn for 90 days. Sounds scary right? Well, the researchers used a breed of rat that was prone to developing cancer, the sample size was tiny, and the researchers used an overly convoluted statistical analysis. That’s not my opinion, that’s straight from the journal that ultimately retracted the study.

Supposedly, the plight of Indian farmers has worsened ever since Monsanto entered the market, which by the way, now has a near monopoly on cotton seeds in India. The story goes that the company cons poor farmers into buying expensive seeds, which don’t reproduce, meaning farmers couldn’t save seeds from crops planted during the previous year. Those areas that use genetically engineered cotton are also said to have the highest rates of suicide. Sounds pretty straightforward right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It’s tragic that so many farmers are killing themselves, but the timelines don’t match up for this allegation to be feasible. Yes, many Indian farmers live in extreme poverty and commit suicide at astonishing rates, but that increase in the suicide rate occurred before Monsanto actually began selling seeds in India and has remained flat since then.

A couple of empirical economic papers found evidence of dramatic growth in profits and crop yields among those farmers who adopted certain bioengineered cotton, so the claim regarding financial insecurity among farmers who use Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds looks very questionable at best.

Finally, the notion that GMO seeds are sterile is just fundamentally not true. Monsanto has the technology to do this, but promised not to use it back in 1999 and so far has reportedly kept that promise.

Based on the available evidence, it looks extremely unlikely that Indian farmers are killing themselves en masse because of genetically engineered cotton.

GMOs may not be so bad after all

The folks at the World Food Prize actually seem convinced that GMOs can do plenty of good.

The organization acclaimed the three winners of its annual award in 2013, saying that “Their work led to the development of a host of genetically enhanced crops, which, by 2012, were grown on more than 170 million hectares around the globe by 17.3 million farmers, over 90 percent of whom were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.”

Golden Rice grain compared to white rice grain in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants.
(International Rice Research Institute/Flickr)
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that Golden Rice, a genetically engineered crop, has the potential to help provide vitamin A to children in developing countries. Vitamin A is essential to growth, sight, and a functioning immune system--not exactly things you can afford to go without.

Genetic engineering has also made Hawaiian papayas immune to devastating disease, and many hope it can do the same for oranges.

This isn’t to say that genetic engineering is the solution to all the world’s problems. As with any other science, it depends on how it’s used.

Health concerns

After reviewing the available research, the American Medical Association, European Commission, American Association for the Advancement of Science, World Health Organization, British Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and many, many other prominent scientific bodies agree that GMOs threaten our health no more than ordinary food.

That sounds like one heck of a consensus.

And much of this research has in fact been conducted by independent scientists. When the European Commission issued its report on genetic engineering, it relied on 130 studies that were conducted over 25 years and involved 500 research teams. The European Union, which is usually pretty hostile to GMOs, funded all of this.

The website, Biology Fortified also maintains a list of 126 GMO studies conducted outside of the biotech industry.

Time and again, the same conclusion emerges from the scientific community: genetically engineered food does not pose a threat any greater than standard food.

And yes, GMOs have been studied quite a bit. A group of Italian scientists examined the available peer-reviewed literature on bioengineered foods from 2002 through 2012. Upon reviewing 1,783 scientific papers on GMOs, the researchers concluded that “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

Furthermore, there’s been plenty of research on long-term health effects. A literature review in Food and Chemical Toxicology looked at 12 long term and 12 multigenerational studies and found no evidence that genetically engineered food posed a statistically significant health risk.

Naturally, some legitimate studies here and there may reveal concerning results. But just one study does not necessarily prove that all GMOs are unsafe. A report could show that some might pose a health risk, but even then, it’s a condemnation of one specific plant, not of the technique of genetic engineering.

The Food and Drug Administration has also explained that it knows of no safety problems of any bioengineered food product on the market today. It uses a science-based procedure to test genetically engineered food for toxins, allergens, and check for other major deviations from conventional food. Lacking any, it stated that there is no basis on which to label food containing GMOs.

But let’s say you still don’t want to consume genetically engineered food. Maybe you’ve really got a bone to pick with certain biotech companies or you’re simply not comfortable eating GMO foods. There’s a solution that already exists for you. The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually labels organic foods, which can’t be made with genetic engineering. Just buy food with the “USDA Organic” label if you’re so inclined.

Environmental impacts

While most of the scientific community appears to agree that genetically engineered food currently on the market is safe for us to eat, it’s a little more complicated on the environmental front.

Lincoln Brower and his colleagues have argued that monarch butterfly populations are declining partly because the milkweed they typically lay eggs on has virtually disappeared in the Midwest due to more effective herbicides, made possible by herbicide tolerant corn and soybeans. In just 17 years, herbicide tolerant crops have grown to make up 85 percent of corn and 93 percent of all soybeans grown in 2013, the USDA reports. This means farmers can eliminate weeds more easily, but that has also devastated milkweed, which, coupled with deforestation, and climate change, has hit the monarch butterfly population pretty hard.

Even so, it’s herbicides, not the actual crops themselves that appear to be having a negative effect on monarch butterflies.

At the same time, the total amount of herbicides used appears to be falling as the use of herbicide resistant crops has grown, though the available data is just preliminary. Reports from the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency also illustrate that the new herbicides for genetically engineered crops also tend to be less toxic than their conventional counterparts.

You recall that butterfly murdering corn I just mentioned? Well, there’s another strand of corn that contains bacillus thuringiensis, a protein lethal to pests that simultaneously does very little if any harm to beneficial insects and wildlife in general — and that’s according to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. Some genetically engineered cotton also uses this protein, which was developed specifically to reduce the use of pesticides, which we know are definitely harmful to human health. 

So, see, it’s difficult to lump rice that prevents blindness in children, herbicide resistant corn, and disease-resistant papayas all into one umbrella category.

Would a label on GMO foods really clarify anything for consumers?

The precautionary principle

Still, maybe genetically engineered food can have some negative environmental or health effects far into the future that we haven’t been able to account for yet. This cautious attitude is called the precautionary principle. Basically, let’s not get too hasty with this brand new thing because it may involve a number of negative long-term problems.

This stuff’s been in our environment and diet for about 25 years now, so taking more time than that to evaluate whether or not this is safe just sounds like miserably slow public policy.

After all this time, the burden of proof is on people who claim GMOs are unsafe and so far, there hasn’t been enough credible evidence to draw that conclusion.

Again, people who are uncomfortable with eating GMOs can just buy organic foods, which the USDA requires to be free of genetic engineering.

Public Opinion

So if I didn’t want to label foods with bioengineered ingredients, I’d be at odds with 93 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to a New York Times poll from December.

That’s a lot of people.

Considering recent state-level victories for GMO label advocates in Maine and Connecticut, along with the introduction of GMO-labeling/banning bills in 26 statehouses (including Iowa) around the country in 2013, and such high public approval of labeling, we’ll probably have great big GMO stickers on food around the country sooner or later.

A label seems to imply something is fundamentally different and/or dangerous about genetically engineered food, but if people feel like they’re not in the loop, a good number of them will be suspicious, and that may be more damaging to the image of GMOs than a label.

Although many labeling advocates would certainly like to think that this will ultimately lead to an outright ban on genetically engineered food, that will only happen over the dead bodies of Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, and Dow Agrosciences

In other words, don’t count on a GMO ban anytime soon.

That’s not to say it’s simply a matter of big agribusiness versus the people. The organic food industry also has a big stake in this arena.

The citizens of California recently decided against a referendum that would have required labels on all genetically modified food. Sure, the industry titans easily outspent the labeling initiative’s supporters, but the organic food industry threw plenty of money into the campaign too. Nature’s Path Foods, Kent Whealy, the co-founder and former board member of the Seed Savers Exchange, (a natural health news site), and others contributed several million dollars to the labeling effort.*

Organic food sales in the United States have also roughly tripled over the past 10 years, and is expected to yield a juicy $35 billion this year, the USDA reported. Organic food is a booming industry and a valuable one, so don’t kid yourself. There are people and businesses out there with an economic interest in convincing you that GMOs are the worst thing ever.

But what about the seed patents, Monsanto suing the pants off farmers, the monopolization of agriculture, and all that other horrible stuff?

As you may know, there’s more to some people’s disdain for bioengineered crops than just health and the environment. Here’s the thing: none of this other stuff is really relevant to GMO labels.

Monsanto is an easy target and may have sketchy business practices, but that doesn’t make genetically engineered food automatically tainted merely by association.

Furthermore, assuming these are major problems, antitrust regulation and patent reform are your solutions, not labeling food.

Like calculus, genetically engineered food can be difficult to sort out. But you don’t have to read through a textbook on law, environmental science, or genetics to understand all of this. Anybody can figure out a complicated issue. All it takes is the power of the almighty Google, knowing who to trust, a little spare time, and patience.

*Clarification: This article originally stated that Kent Whealy was affiliated with the Seed Savers Exchange. He is the co-founder and was a board member, but is no longer a member of the Seed Savers Exchange.

Jon Overton is the media editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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